What is work aging?
Work aging measures the amount of time that each item of work in progress has been in progress for. This metric gives us insight into the responsiveness and speed of delivery - how long it takes to complete work, and how often we can get feedback and change direction.
Because it measures time spent in progress, work aging is closely related to cycle time, but has the key advantage of timeliness. Cycle time tells you what has already happened, whereas work aging tells you what is happening right now.
What does good look like?
Work age is an excellent leading indicator of delivery issues. While work age is stable, the team is starting and finishing work regularly. Average work item size is consistent and any blockers or impediments are within normal bounds for the team.
On the other hand, if your work age is climbing, then something is slowing the team down or getting in their way. Because work is taking longer to complete, the team is likely to get through less work in the same time.
There are many possible reasons for increasing work age, so you'll need to talk as a team to work out what's going on. Here are a few things to look for:
More frequent and/or severe blockers
Increasing work in progress
Increasing work item size
In addition to monitoring average work age, it can be useful to look at the specific work items that are aging to find informative patterns. For example, perhaps your team finds that most of your aging work items have an estimate of 8 or more story points. You could agree to slice this work smaller to reduce the incidence of aging work.
What are the pitfalls to avoid?
If your workplace culture leans more toward blame than trust, then strong incentives exist to manipulate or 'game' metrics to present a particular image. Work aging is particularly prone to this, as people who are working on aging items can feel at risk of being unfairly blamed.
To mitigate this, focus on identifying and improving the systemic factors that make delivery difficult, slow and unpredictable within your organisation. Systemic issues such as excessive work in progress, cross-team dependencies and inadequate test environments impact delivery performance far more than individual actions.
Product development is complex work, and from time you time you'll encounter unexpected challenges. If your average work age is under control, don't worry too much about a small number of aging items - it happens.
How can I start measuring work aging?
Measuring work aging on a physical team board is straightforward, particularly if you are already measuring cycle time. Once per day, add a tally mark to each item of work in progress and chart the changes over time.
Many agile management tools do not provide work age reporting, so monitoring this metric digitally can be tricky. If you can extract (or record) the start times for each item of work in progress, then you can calculate work age in a spreadsheet.
Alternatively, Mazzlo Delivery Analytics can automate the collection of work age data, present clear insights on work aging, and provide early warning of emerging delivery problems. Start a free trial or contact us to learn more.